Thanks, Amtrak, for demonstrating how to apologize badly

By | January 15, 2020

I recently wrote about a series of poor experiences I had with Amtrak and most notably about their horrendous response to my feedback about those experiences.

I decided to send a complaint letter to the CEO of Amtrak. Of course, I knew the CEO was never going to see my letter, but every large corporation has a procedure for responding to complaints sent to the CEO, so it’s the quickest way to cut through the red tape and get someone’s attention, even if the someone in question is just a low-level customer relations person.

Here’s what I wrote in my letter:

December 12, 2019

Richard H. Anderson, CEO
Amtrak
1 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

As I am sure you are aware, due to a tragic accident on December 5 in which an Amtrak worker was electrocuted, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service was negatively impacted throughout the day, with many trains delayed or canceled.

I was scheduled to take an Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Boston, MA on the evening of December 5. Because of the Amtrak service issues, my train was delayed by many hours, and I ended up giving up and paying for a one-way rental car to drive back to Boston.

I have many complaints with how Amtrak has handled the service issues and their aftermath. I summarized them all in a Twitter thread (https://bit.ly/AmtrakThread) on December 12. Here is the text of that thread:

[not including the text here since you can read it in my previous blog posting]

A few minutes later, the following (clearly unintentional) reply appeared from the Amtrak Twitter account:

[again, see my previous blog posting]

This Tweet, which was clearly meant to be an internal note rather than a public Tweet, committed the triple offense of exposing private information about me; explicitly acknowledging that Amtrak’s customer service people view my legitimate complaints as “venting” and refuse to pass them on to people within Amtrak who might actually do something about them; and explicitly acknowledging that they are explicitly choosing not to respond to my complaints.

I had pretty much already assumed that Amtrak’s customer service people were ignoring my feedback and consciously refusing to engage with me about it, but to have it explicitly confirmed by them is quite damning.

Is this, indeed, Amtrak’s policy about how to respond to legitimate feedback from its customers?

I am a frequent Amtrak passenger (indeed, I am a Guest Rewards Select member) and I am a major booster of rail transit, especially given the environmental benefits of taking the train rather than flying. But it is difficult to support Amtrak when your service is poor and you ignore and disrespect passengers who offer constructive feedback.

I am curious to see if this letter will also be ignored.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Kamens

And here is Amtrak’s less than stellar response:

Here’s a transcript:

January 9, 2020

Ms. Jonathan Kamens
[address elided]

Dear Mr. Kamens:

Thank you for your letter of December 12, 2019 to Mr. Richard H. Anderson. I am responding on behalf of the Corporation.

On-time performance is a major concern at Amtrak. We make every effort to operate on schedule, because we know how frustrating a late train is to our customers. I am sorry that your train arrived late and that you were inconvenienced. In spite of our best efforts, delays due to severe weather and mechanical problems are an unwelcome but unavoidable part of the transportation business. Sometimes these circumstances are fluid and ever-changing and quick decisions have to be made and I am sorry that you were not contacted earlier. While we do not guarantee on-time performance, we understand that delays inconvenience our passengers. I apologize that you had to jump through so many hoops to obtain your refund. I can certainly understand your frustration.

Further apologize for the reply you received from the Amtrak Twitter account. We expect every Amtrak employee to treat our customers with courtesy and respect, and I am sorry that you received otherwise. I have forwarded a copy of your letter to the responsible management for review and corrective action. As information, when passengers contact our Customer Relations Department we attempt to resolve customer complaints through that department and not through social media.

Your experience does not represent a typical Amtrak journey. Because we value your patronage and in addition to our sincere apologies, I have requested that a refund in the amount of $55.00 be credited to the Visa used for purchase. This amount represents your full fare. Depending on your bank’s procedures, please allow at least two weeks before this adjustment appears on your account.

Once again, thank you for your letter. We look forward to seeing you on board again soon under better circumstances.

Sincerely,

Adam Bland
Customer Relations Specialist

I could probably rant for hours about everything that’s wrong with this “apology” letter, but frankly the whole thing is just so exhausting, so I’m just going to hit some of the highlights.

If you want to give the impression that you actually care about the person you’re writing to, you take the time to ensure that your letter is free of typographical errors and obvious grammar errors. I am not a “Ms.”, and, “Further apologize for the reply you received from the Amtrak Twitter account,” is gobbledygook.

This letter gives no sign that Amtrak has any intention of improving any of the problem areas I complained about (failing to notify passengers about a whole corridor of trains being delayed for most of a day; failing to refund tickets automatically in such circumstances; making it absurdly difficult for passengers to request refunds). I don’t want them to be “sorry,” I want them to fix the problems and do better in the future. That clearly won’t be happening.

“As information, when passengers contact our Customer Relations Department we attempt to resolve customer complaints through that department and not through social media,” is patronizing, obnoxious, and utterly bogus:

  • Amtrak interacts with passengers in tweets and Twitter DMs all the time.
  • They have a link to their Twitter on every page of their web site. The accidentally tweeted internal comment I wrote about in my last blog posting proves that their social media team are part of their customer relations department, since they have access to the customer relations database.
  • The reason why I was attempting to interact with them via Twitter is because, as I told them, the email contact form on their web site doesn’t work (another thing this letter gives no sign they intend to fix) and I wanted to put my complaints in writing rather than ranting at a low-level customer relations agent on the phone after waiting too long on hold.

Finally, the fact that the author of this letter says that he ordered a refund of my ticket “because we value your patronage and in addition to our sincere apologies,” as if he was doing me a favor that I should be grateful for, is stunningly wrong and offensive. Amtrak’s own terms and conditions say I was entitled to a refund of my ticket:

Amtrak may, in the event of a force majeure event, without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any train or the right of carriage without liability except to issue a refund. The refund will be made in the original form of payment in accordance with refund rules for any unused portion of the ticket.

(Incidentally, in another display of Amtrak’s incompetence, most of the sections of the terms and conditions page can be linked to directly, but because the page is improperly designed a few of the sections, the “Force Majeure Event” section among them, can’t be.)

Amtrak was not doing me a favor by refunding my ticket, as they would have me believe. They were legally required to.

According to LinkedIn, Adam Bland, the author of this letter, has been working for Amtrak for almost 9 years. Here’s what his LinkedIn profile says his job is:

Performs the final adjudication of escalated customer complaints and responds to correspondence on behalf of the Office of the President and other Amtrak executives. Creates official Amtrak language for internal and external distribution.

• Creates official Amtrak verbiage for public release including policy updates, news regarding changes to track and equipment, and language for complaint resolution.
• Documents customer comments for corporate reporting and for reference by other Amtrak departments and outside agencies, including the Better Business Bureau and Federal Railroad Administration.
• Cultivates and maintains inter-departmental relationships to ensure accurate communication of Amtrak policy, assist in timely resolution of customer disputes, and coordinate consistent Amtrak messaging.
• Authorizes monetary refunds outside of policy on a case-by-case basis.

After all that time, one would think he would be better at his job. That is, unless of course the kind of letter he sent me is exactly the kind of letter Amtrak management wants him to send.

I’m not the only person who has received boilerplate letters from Mr. Bland about which they were not pleased:

(Click through to view the whole thread.)

The climate crisis calls for world-class high-speed rail in this country. Instead, what we’ve got is… this. We’re all doomed.

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